Southern Illinois camp thriving, growing with capital campaign

At a time when a number of church camps are closing or being sold, DuBois Center is expanding. In fact, the Illinois South Conference camp in Dubois, Ill., just ceremoniously broke ground on a new building.

“One of the reasons we are building that cabin is that we are a year-round facility,” said the Rev. Shana Johnson, Conference Minister, referring to the fifth cabin the Center is adding to its “Main Camp” village.

The facility, which hosts youth summer camps, family retreats and other programming, is in the midst of a major upgrade.

Ecological care, increased capacity

Hillside Cottage will be the first addition of its kind in more than 50 years, thanks to ongoing church, group and private donations, part of a 15-month capital campaign called DuBois 6.0, which celebrates 60 years of the land being gifted to the UCC Conference by the Illinois Central Railroad.

“With the launch of our capital campaign last year, we have had an abundance of people who have given their time, efforts and financial support,” said Rylee Bernhardt, the Center’s program director, referring to volunteers young and old from Conference congregations. “Time and time again, even under these extreme (pandemic) circumstances, DuBois Center proves to be a place people want to invest in.”

The cottage, which will be ADA-compliant and solar-powered, will be the first completely “off grid” building at camp, because, as Johnson said, “we are increasingly partnering with organizations that have ecological care as a core value.

“This fall, we are working with Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and some area school districts through a program called Nature’s Classroom. We need more capacity.”

The DeBois Center family gathers for a photo during the Hillside Cottage groundbreaking earlier this fall.

Hillside Cottage, which should be ready to occupy by summer 2024, is just one of 17 planned maintenance and expansion projects. Others ranged from paint and upgrades to solar projects, lake aeration and a new hay barn.

Fundraising for stretch goal

The capital campaign, said Jill Baker, DuBois 6.0 chair and Illinois South moderator, kicked off last fall with a goal just short of a half million dollars.

“Our 15-month campaign met its initial $225,290 goal in under 10 months,” she said. “We now have a ‘stretch’ goal of $300,000 to include other projects beyond the original 17.”

The fundraiser, which ends in December, aims to invest money in expanding the outdoor ministry center’s ability to host new groups.

“I think it is very important to pull in other partners and bring diversity to DuBois because it’s what we’re supposed to be doing as Christians,” said Jill Mayer, director of children’s and youth ministries at St. Paul UCC, Waterloo, Ill. “Jesus asks us to love our neighbors, and one of the best ways to love others is to show them hospitality and welcome them into your home.

“We reap a ton of benefits by welcoming new people and pulling in new partners. We get to learn from each other and gain more experience seeing the face of God in someone across the dining table from us.”

Diversifying outdoor ministry

Playing around at a women’s retreat.

Mayer has spent time at the outdoor ministry center over the years as a visitor, youth chaperone, parent, volunteer counselor and retreat leader. “No matter what role I’m playing when I’m at DuBois, it’s impossible to have a bad time when you’re there,” she said.

“DuBois is definitely a gift to our church and the other churches in our conference. Having a space that we can depend upon for youth and family retreats is a huge boon,” she said, noting that “being able to attend DuBois has really helped many of our children and youth to develop their faith and themselves — a lot of growing up happens while children and youth are at camp.

“Knowing that the programming offered is aligned with the UCC is a huge benefit. As a parent and faith educator, I value knowing that the lessons and ideas that the children will be learning fit with the faith paradigm our church follows. I wouldn’t necessarily have that if I had to send my children to a different church’s camp.”

But the other programs DuBois offers in addition to the church camp has set the place apart.

“Summer camp is always fun for everyone involved, yet the ability to diversify was crucial in order to further extend our invitation to others who would not normally have the ability to come to summer camp,” Bernhardt said, noting that families, faith groups and other non-traditional campers can spend time there.

A young camper participating in DuBois Center’s Horse Camp.

“Our equine program is probably our most successful programming piece,” she said. “I grew up as a very committed Horse Camper, and it was one of the main reasons I gained such affection for DuBois Center. I was given the opportunity to gain confidence in a new skill, and it allowed me to fall in love with discovering a new part of myself. The pride, appreciation and friendship that come along with being a Horse Camper are enough to be drawn back.”

Johnson said they hope to expand the equine program to cater to children with special needs.

“The horses are what set our camps apart,” she said, as she also talked about other ways the outdoor ministry is diversifying.

“We’ve created a program called ‘Green DuBois’ for folks who are interested from anything from recycling to birding to tracking invasive species,” referring to a team of volunteers who support the Center through environmental educational activities and ecological projects.

“We have a lot of energy, moving us into the future.”

A thriving place

The Center is now wrapping up fall programming and will be in “off season” December through March. Retreats, Bernhardt said, pick up with the spring. They offer family retreats, father-son retreats, women’s retreats, build-your-own retreats and retreats built around the horses.

“Retreats offer a lot of time to bond with others and heal amongst nature due to the slower pace and smaller groups,” she said.

A father-son retreat at the Southern Illinois outdoor ministry.


”I’ve also seen so much joy brought to the families who attend family retreats,” Mayer said. “Ask any parent, and they’ll tell you that having time away to reconnect as a family without having to worry about extra-curricular activities or meal preparation is truly a godsend.

“I truly believe that each child/youth/family that leaves DuBois to return home feels lighter and more able to thrive in their everyday life.”

“There is something here for everyone, and that is what makes it so important,” Bernhardt said. “It’s no wonder a place like this thrived (during the pandemic) when the world only felt grief.”

Running the horses at DuBois Center.

DuBois Center is currently searching for a new Executive Director. Learn more about this position, on the UCC ministry opportunities page under the Illinois South Conference of the UCC.


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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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